The famous white bearded Santa Claus, otherwise known as Saint Nicholas, has a long history steeped in Christmas traditions. The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas which is Dutch for Saint Nicholas.
The stories of Santa Claus stretches all the way back to the 3rd century, when Saint Nicholas walked the earth and became the patron saint of children.
Saint Nicholas was admired for his piety and kindness. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and travelled the countryside helping the poor and sick. A story that has been heard for many generations was the time when Saint Nicholas saved three poor sisters from being sold by their father into slavery. He helped the sisters by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married.
With his acts of kindness, Nicholas’s popularity spread all over and he became known as the protector of children as well as sailors.
St. Nicholas made his first inroads into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century.
A New York Newspaper reported in December 1773, and again in 1774, that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death on the 6th of December. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married.
In 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas which contains now-familiar Santa images such as the stockings filled with presents.
Since the holiday’s rejuvenation in the early 19th century, gift-giving which mainly centered around children, has become an important part of the Christmas celebration.
Since then stores began to advertise Christmas shopping. In the 1840s, newspapers started creating separate sections for holiday advertisements, which featured images of the newly-popular Santa Claus.
However, Santa Claus was not the only St. Nicholas-inspired gift-giver on Christmas. There are similar figures and traditions, such as Christkind or Kris Kringle who was believed to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children. Christkind was known to be an angel-like figure who often accompanied by St. Nicholas on his holiday missions.
A year later, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model. This became a famous way for stores to attract children, and their parents, by presenting a live Santa Claus.
Back in the early 1890s, the Salvation army was in desperate need of funding to pay for the free Christmas meals for families in need. That is where the dressing up part started, as the army began dressing up unemployed men in Santa Claus suits to send them to the streets of New York to collect donations. Those familiar Salvation Army Santas have been ringing bells on the street corners of American cities ever since.
The tradition of seeing Santa Claus on his chair and children rushing to take photos is still a huge tradition to this day. The Macy’s Santa began in 1924, and has appeared at every Macy Thanksgiving parade – which is actually a Christmas parade – ever since. Fans of all ages started lining up to meet the Macy’s Santa in New York City. The Macy’s Santa were also present at stores around the country, where children can take pictures on Santa’s lap and even whisper in his ear what they would like for Christmas.
Now, where did the traditional story of Santa flying from house to house begin? Well, back in 1822, an Episcopal minister known as Clement Clarke Moore, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." The poem is more popularly known today as "‘Twas The Night Before Christmas." The poem is largely responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus as a "right jolly old elf" with a "portly" figure, and the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head! Moore’s poem helped popularize the now-familiar image of a Santa Claus who flies from house to house on Christmas Eve in "a miniature sleigh" which was pulled by eight flying reindeer.
The modern image of Santa mostly began back in 1881, when political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create his cartoon figure which appeared in Harper’s Weekly. Nast had been illustrating Santa as an elf for Harper's since 1863, but this was the first time he illustrated Santa as a round figure man who is cheerful with a full white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. Nast also created Santa with his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, although the image has deep political undertones.
Even though Santa Claus is the most famous Christmas figure, there are still other traditions around the country. English legend explains that Father Christmas visits each home on Christmas Eve to fill children’s stockings with holiday treats, In France, Père Noël is responsible for filling the shoes of French children and, in Russia, it is believed that an elderly woman named Babouschka purposely gave the wise men wrong directions to Bethlehem so that they couldn’t find Jesus.
Children through the ages have grown fond of the Christmas figure, and write letters to Santa every year. Children were told the story of how Santa Claus keeps a "naughty list" and a "nice list" to determine who deserves gifts on Christmas morning. The lists are immortalized in the 1934 Christmas song, "Santa Claus is coming to Town";
He's making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!”
And so, the story of Santa Claus began. Each Christmas Eve, the white bearded Santa dressed in red velvet clothing, flies on his magic sleigh led by his reindeer Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and the most famous reindeer of all, Rudolph, and enters each home through the chimney, leaving presents under the Christmas Tree or in stockings hanging above the fireplace.